The Changing State of Childhood: American Childhood as a Social and Cultural Construct

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The Changing State of Childhood:

American Childhood as a Social and Cultural Construct

Steven Mintz

Today, many adults believe that childhood is disappearing and that children’s well-being is declining precipitously. They fear that free, unstructured outdoor play has been replaced with adult organized activities or sedentary, electronically-mediated entertainment; that nutritious, home-cooked food has been replaced by fat- and calorie-laden junk food; and that children’s access to adult media has eroded the distinction between childhood and adulthood. Meanwhile, many worry about the impact of divorce, violent videogames, excessive homework and academic testing in schools, and a consumer economy that targets kids with wiles once reserved for adults.1

Above all, many fear that contemporary children, suffocating from overprotection and overscheduling, are growing up too fast and losing their sense of innocent wonder at too young an age. Prematurely exposed to the pressures, stresses, and responsibilities of adult life, they fear, the young mimic adult sophistication, dress inappropriately, and experiment with alcohol, drugs, sex, and tobacco before they are emotionally and psychologically ready.

The belief that childhood is going to hell in a handbasket rests on a number of implicit assumptions about childhood and family life in the past that do not withstand serious scrutiny. As we shall see, it is a great mistake to view the past through rose-colored glasses.

Childhood Myths and Realities

Nowhere is it easier to romanticize childhood than in Mark Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Missouri. In this small Mississippi riverfront town, where Mark Twain lived, off and on, from the age of four until he was seventeen, many enduring American fantasies about childhood come to life. There is a historical marker next to a fence like the one that Tom’s friends paid him for the privilege of white-washing. There is another marker pointing to the spot where Huck’s cabin supposedly stood. There is also the window where Huck hurled pebbled to wake the sleeping Tom. Gazing out across the raging waters of the Mississippi, now unfortunately hidden behind a floodwall, one can easily imagine the raft excursion that Huck and Jim took seeking freedom and adventure.

Hannibal occupies a special place in our collective imagination as the setting of two of fiction’s most famous depictions of childhood. Our cherished myths about childhood as a bucolic time of freedom, untainted innocence, and self-discovery come to life in this river town. But beyond the accounts of youthful wonder and small-town innocence, Twain’s novels teem with grim and unsettling details about childhood’s underside. Huck’s father Pap was an abusive drunkard who beat his son for learning how to read. When we idealize Mark Twain’s Hannibal and its eternally youthful residents, we suppress his novels’ more sinister aspects.2

Twain’s real-life mid-nineteenth-century Hannibal was anything but a haven of stability and security. It was a place where a quarter of the children died before their first birthday, half before they reached the age of twenty-one. Twain himself experienced the death of two siblings. Although he was not physically abused like the fictional Huck, his father was emotionally cold and aloof. There were few open displays of affection in his boyhood home. Only once did he remember seeing his father and mother kiss, and that was at the deathbed of his brother Ben. Nor was his home a haven of economic security. His boyhood ended before his twelfth birthday when his father’s death forced him to take up a series of odd jobs. Before he left home permanently at seventeen, he had already worked as a printer’s apprentice; clerked in a grocery store, a bookshop, and a drug store; tried his hand at blacksmithing; and delivered newspapers. Childhood ended early in Twain’s hometown, though full adulthood came no more quickly than it does today.3

A series of myths cloud public thinking about the history of American childhood. One is the myth of a carefree childhood. We cling to a fantasy that once upon a time childhood and youth were years of carefree adventure, despite the fact that for most children in the past, growing up was anything but easy. Disease, family disruption, and early entry into the world of work were integral parts of family life. The notion of a long childhood, devoted to education and free from adult-like responsibilities, is a very recent invention, a product of the past century and a half, and one that only became a reality for a majority of children after World War II.

Another myth is that of home as a haven and bastion of stability in an ever-changing world. Throughout American history, family stability has been the exception, not the norm. At the beginning of the twentieth century, fully a third of all American children spent at least a portion of their childhood in a single-parent home, and as recently as 1940, one child in ten did not live with either parent—compared to one in 25 today.4

A third myth is that childhood is the same for all children, a status transcending class, ethnicity, and gender. In fact, every aspect of childhood is shaped by class—as well as by ethnicity, gender, geography, religion, and historical era. We may think of childhood as a biological phenomenon, but it is better understood as a life stage whose contours are shaped by a particular time and place. Childrearing practices, schooling, and the age at which young people leave home—all are the products of particular social and cultural circumstances.

A fourth myth is that the United States is a peculiarly child-friendly society when, in actuality, Americans are deeply ambivalent about children. Adults envy young people their youth, vitality, and physical attractiveness. But they also resent children’s intrusions on their time and resources and frequently fear their passions and drives. Many of the reforms that nominally have been designed to protect and assist the young were also instituted to insulate adults from children.

Lastly a myth, which is perhaps the most difficult to overcome, is a myth of progress, and its inverse, a myth of decline. There is a tendency to conceive of the history of childhood as a story of steps forward over time: of parental engagement replacing emotional distance, of kindness and leniency supplanting strict and stern punishment, of scientific enlightenment superceding superstition and misguided moralism. This progressivism is sometimes seen in reverse, i.e. that childhood is disappearing: that children are growing up too quickly and wildly and losing their innocence, playfulness, and malleability.

Various myths and misconceptions have contributed to this undue pessimism about the young. There has never been a golden age of childhood when the overwhelming majority of American children were well cared for and their experiences were idyllic. Nor has childhood ever been an age of innocence, at least not for the overwhelming majority of children. Childhood has never been insulated from the pressures and demands of the surrounding society and each generation of children has had to wrestle with the particular social, political, and economic constraints of its own historical period. In our own time, the young have had to struggle with high rates of family instability, a deepening disconnection from adults, and the expectation that all children should pursue the same academic path at the same pace, even as the attainment of full adulthood recedes ever further into the future.
The Social and Cultural Construction of Childhood

The history of children is often treated as a marginal subject, and there is no question that the history of children is especially difficult to write. Children are rarely obvious historical actors. Compared to adults, they leave fewer historical sources, and their powerlessness makes them less visible than other social groups. Nevertheless, the history of childhood is inextricably bound up with the broader political and social events in the life of the nation—including colonization, revolution, slavery, industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and war—and children’s experience embodies many of the key themes in American history, such as the rise of modern bureaucratic institutions, the growth of a consumer economy, and the elaboration of a welfare state. Equally important, childhood’s history underscores certain long-term transformations in American life, such as an intensifying consciousness about age, a clearer delineation of distinct life stages, and the increasing tendency to organize institutions by age.

Childhood is not an unchanging, biological stage of life, and children are not just “grow’d,” like Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Rather, childhood is a social and cultural construct. Every aspect of childhood—including children’s relationships with their parents and peers, their proportion of the population, and their paths through childhood to adulthood—has changed dramatically over the past four centuries. Methods of child rearing, the duration of schooling, the nature of children’s play, young people’s’ participation in work, and the points of demarcation between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood are products of culture, class, and historical era.5

Childhood in the past was experienced and conceived of in quite a different way than today. Just two centuries ago, there was far less age segregation than there is today and much less concern with organizing experience by chronological age. There was also far less sentimentalizingation of children as special beings who were more innocent and vulnerable than adults. This does not mean that adults failed to recognize childhood as a stage of life, with its own special needs and characteristics. Nor does it imply that parents were unconcerned about their children and failed to love them and mourn their deaths. Rather, it means that the experience of young people was organized and valued very differently than it is today.

Language itself illustrates shifts in the construction of childhood. Two hundred years ago, the words used to describe childhood were far less precise than those we use today. The word “infancy” referred not to the months after birth, but to the period in which children were under their mother’s control, typically from birth to the age of 5 or 6. The word childhood might refer to someone as young as the age of 5 or 6 or as old as the late teens or early 20s. Instead of using our term adolescent or teenager, Americans two centuries ago used a broader and more expansive term, youth, which stretched from the pre-teen years until the early or mid-20s. The vagueness of this term reflected the amorphousness of the life stages; chronological age was less important than physical strength, size, and maturity. A young person did not achieve full adult status until marriage and establishment of an independent farm or entrance into a full-time trade or profession. Full adulthood might be attained as early as the mid- or late teens, but usually did not occur until the late twenties 20s or early thirties 30s.6

How, then, has childhood changed over the past 400 years? The transformations that have taken place might be grouped into three broad categories. The first involves shifts in the timing, sequence, and stages of growing up. Over the past four centuries, the stages of childhood have grown much more precise, uniform, and prescriptive. Before the Civil War, children and teens moved sporadically in and out of the parental home, schools, and jobs, an irregular, episodic pattern that the historian Joseph F. Kett termed “semi-dependence.” Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, however, there were growing efforts to regularize and systematize childhood experiences. Unable to transmit their status position directly to their children, through bequests of family lands, transmission of craft skills, or selection of a marriage partner, middle-class parents adopted new strategies to assist their children emphasizing birth control, maternal nurture, and prolonged schooling. Less formal methods of childrearing and education were replaced by intensive forms of childrearing and prescribed curricula in schools. Unstructured contacts with adults were supplanted by carefully age-graded institutions. Activities organized by young people themselves were succeeded by adult sponsored, adult-organized organization. Lying behind these developments was a belief that childhood should be devoted to education, play, and character-building activities; that children needed time to mature inside a loving home and segregated from adult affairs; and that precocious behavior needed to be suppressed.7

Demography is a second force for change. A sharp reduction in the birth rate substantially reduced the proportion of children in the general population, from half the population in the mid-nineteenth century to a third by 1900. A declining birth rate divided families into more distinct generations and allowed parents to lavish more time, attention, and resources on each child; it also made society less dependent on children’s labor and allowed adult society to impose new institutional structures on young peoples’ lives reflecting shifting notions about children’s proper chronological development.

The third category is attitudinal. Adult conceptions of childhood have shifted profoundly over time, from the seventeenth-century Puritan image of the child as a depraved being who needed to be restrained; to the Enlightened notion of children as blank slates who could be shaped by environmental influences; to the Romantic conception of children as creatures with innocent souls and redeemable, docile wills; to the Darwinian emphasis on highly differentiated stages of children’s cognitive, physiological, and emotional development; to the Freudian conception of children as seething cauldrons of instinctual drives; and to the contemporary notions which that emphasize children’s competence and capacity for early learning.

The history of childhood might be conceptualized in terms of three overlapping phases. The first, pre-modern childhood, which roughly coincides with the colonial era, was a period in which the young were viewed as adults in training. Religious and secular authorities regarded childhood as a time of deficiency and incompleteness, and adults rarely referred to their childhood with nostalgia or fondness. Infants were viewed as unformed and even animalistic due to their inability to speak or stand upright. A parent’s duty was to hurry a child toward adult status, especially through early engagement in work responsibilities, both inside the parental home and outside it, as servants and apprentices.

The middle of the eighteenth century saw the emergence of a new set of attitudes, which came to define modern childhood. A growing number of parents began to regard children as innocent, malleable, and fragile creatures who needed to be sheltered from contamination. Childhood was increasingly viewed as a separate stage of life that required special care and institutions to protect it. During the nineteenth century, the growing acceptance of this new ideal among the middle class was evident in prolonged residence of young people within the parental home; longer periods of formal schooling; and an increasing consciousness about the stages of young peoples’ development, culminating in the “discovery” (or, more accurately, the invention) of adolescence around the turn of the twentieth century.

Universalizing the modern ideal of a sheltered childhood was a highly uneven process and one that has never encompassed all American children. Indeed, it was not until the 1950s that the norms of modern childhood defined the modal experience of young people in the United States. But developments were already underway that would bring modern childhood to an end and replace it with something quite different, a new phase that might be called post-modern childhood. This term refers to the breakdown of dominant norms about the family, gender roles, age, and even reproduction, as they were subjected to radical change and revision. Age norms that many considered “natural” were thrown into question. Even the bedrock biological process of sexual maturation accelerated. Today’s children are much more likely than the Baby Boomers to experience their parents’ divorce; to have a working mother; to spend significant amounts of time unsupervised by adults; to grow up without siblings; and to hold a job during high school. Adolescent girls are much more likely to have sexual relations during their mid-teens.8

Superficially, post-modern childhood resembles pre-modern childhood. As in the seventeenth century, children are no longer regarded as the binary opposites of adults. Nor are they considered naïve and innocent creatures. Today, adults quite rightly assume that even pre-adolescents are knowledgeable about the realities of the adult world. But unlike pre-modern children, post-modern children are independent consumers and participants in a separate, semi-autonomous youth culture. We still assume that the young are fundamentally different from adults; that they should spend their first eighteen years in the parents’ home; and devote their time to education in age-graded schools. But it is also clear that basic aspects of the ideal of a protected childhood, in which the young are kept isolated from adult realities, have broken down.9


Diversity has always been the hallmark of American childhood. In seventeenth-century America, demographic, economic, religious, and social factors made geographical subcultures the most important markers of diversity in children’s experience. In the early period of settlement, colonial childhood took profoundly different forms of New England, the Middle Colonies, and the Chesapeake and southern-most colonies. In seventeenth century New England, hierarchical, patriarchal Calvinist families shaped children’s experience. In the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia, in contrast, families were highly unstable and indentured servitude shaped children’s experience. Only in the Middle Colonies, from New York to Delaware, did a childhood emphasizing maternal nurture, and an acceptance of early autonomy emerge, yet even here, large numbers of children experienced various forms of dependence, as household and indentured servants, apprentices, or slaves.10

In the nineteenth century, a highly uneven process of capitalist expansion made social class, gender, and race more saliant contributors to childhood diversity. The children of the urban middle class, prosperous commercial farmers, and southern planters enjoyed increasingly long childhoods, free from major household or work responsibilities until their late teens or 20s, whereas the offspring of urban workers, frontier farmers, and blacks, both slave and free, had briefer childhoods and became involved in work inside or outside the home before they reached their teens. Many urban working-class children contributed to the family economy through scavenging in the streets, vacant lots, or back alleys, collecting coal, wood, and other items that could be used at home or sold. Others took part in the street trades, selling gum, peanuts, and crackers. In industrial towns, young people under the age of 15 contributed on average about 20% of their family’s income. In mining areas, boys as young as 10 or 12 worked as breakers, separating coal from pieces of slate and wood, before becoming miners in their mid- or late teens. On farms, children as young as 5 or 6 might pull weeds or chase birds and cattle away from crops. By the time they reached the age of 8, many tended livestock, and as they grew older they milked cows, churned butter, fed chickens, collected eggs, hauled water, scrubbed laundry, and harvested crops. A blurring of gender roles among children and youth was especially common on frontier farms. Schooling varied as widely, as did work routines. In the rural North, the Midwest, and the Far West, most mid- and late-nineteenth-century students attended one-room schools for 3 to 6 months a year. In contrast, city children attended age-graded classes taught by professional teachers 9 months a year. In both rural and urban areas, girls tended to receive more schooling than boys 11

Late in the nineteenth century, self-described child-savers launched a concerted campaign to overcome diversity and universalize a middle-class childhood. This was a slow and bitterly resisted process. Not until the 1930s was child labor finally outlawed and not until the 1950s did high school attendance become a universal experience. Yet for all the success in advancing this middle-class ideal, even today, social class remains a primary determinant of children’s well-being.12

In recent years, social conservatives have tended to fixate on family structure as a source of diversity in children’s well-being, while political liberals have tended to focus on ethnicity, race, and gender. In fact, it is poverty that is the most powerful predictor of children’s welfare. Economic stress contributes to family instability, inadequate health care, high degrees of mobility, poor parenting, and elevated levels of stress and depression. As in the nineteenth century, social class significantly differentiates contemporary American childhoods. There is a vast difference between the highly pressured, hyper-organized, fast-track childhoods of affluent children and the highly-stressed childhoods of the one-third of children who live in poverty at some point before the age of eighteen. In many affluent families, the boundaries between work and family life have diminished, and parents manage by tightly organizing their children’s lives. Yet, contradictorily, most affluent children have their own television and computer and therefore unmediated access to information, and are unsupervised by their parents for large portions of the day. In many affluent families there are drastic swings between parental distance from children and parental indulgence, when fathers and mothers try to compensate for parenting too little. Yet at the same time, one-sixth of all children live in poverty at any one time, including 36 percent of black children and 34 percent of Hispanic children. This generally entails limited adult supervision, inferior schooling, and a lack of easy access to productive diversions and activities.
The Politics of Childhood

In recent years, two contrasting visions of childhood have collided. One is a vision of a protected childhood, in which children are to be sheltered from adult realities, especially from sex, obscenity, and death. The opposing vision is of a prepared childhood, of children who are exposed from a relatively early age to the realities of contemporary society, such as sexuality and diverse family patterns. Proponents of a prepared childhood argue that in a violent, highly commercialized, and hypersexualized society, a naïve child is a vulnerable child.

Clashes between conflicting conceptions of childhood are not new. For four hundred years, childhood has been a highly contested category. The late twentieth-century culture war—pitting advocates of a “protected” childhood, who sought to shield children from adult realities, against proponents of a “prepared” childhood—was only the most recent in a long series of conflicts over the definition of a proper childhood. In the seventeenth century, there were bitter struggles between Puritans, who regarded even newborn infants as sinful, and humanistic educators who emphasized children’s malleability, and Anglican traditionalists who considered children as symbols of values (including the value of deference and respect for social hierarchy) that were breaking down as England underwent wrenching economic transformations that accompanied the rise of modern capitalist enterprise. In the late eighteenth century, battles raged over infant depravity and patriarchal authority, conflicts that gave added resonance to the American revolutionary’s struggle against royal authority. At the turn of the twentieth century, conflict erupted between the proponents of a useful childhood, which expected children to reciprocate for their parents’ sacrifices, and advocates of a sheltered childhood, free from labor and devoted to play and education.13

Anxiety is the hallmark of modern parenthood. Today’s parents agonize incessantly about their children’s physical health, personality development, psychological well-being, and academic performance. From birth, parenthood is colored by apprehension. Contemporary parents worry about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, stranger abductions, and physical and sexual abuse, as well as more mundane problems, such as sleep disorders and hyperactivity.

Parental anxiety about children’s well-being is not a new development, but parents’ concerns have taken dramatically different forms over time. Until the mid-nineteenth century, parents were primarily concerned about their children’s health, religious piety, and moral development. In the late nineteenth century, parents became increasingly attentive to their children’s emotional and psychological well-being, and during the twentieth century, parental anxieties dwelt on children’s personality development, gender identity, and their ability to interact with peers. Today, much more than in the past, guilt-ridden, uncertain parents worry that their children not suffer from boredom, low self-esteem, or excessive school pressures.14

Today, we consider early childhood life’s formative stage, and believe that children’s experiences during the first two or three years of life mold their personality, lay the foundation for future cognitive and psychological development, and leave a lasting imprint on their emotional life. We also assume that children’s development proceeds through a series of physiological psychological, social, and cognitive stages; that even very young children have a capacity to learn; that play serves valuable developmental functions; and that growing up requires children to separate emotionally and psychologically from their parents. These assumptions differ markedly from those held three centuries ago. Before the mid- eighteenth century, most adults betrayed surprisingly little interest in the very first years of life and autobiographies revealed little nostalgia for childhood. Also, adults tended to dismiss children’s play as trivial and insignificant.

Parenting has evolved through a series of successive and overlapping phases, from a seventeenth-century view of children as “adults-in-training” to the early nineteenth-century emphasis on character formation; the late-nineteenth century notion of scientific childrearing, stressing regularity and systematization; the mid-twentieth century emphasis on fulfilling children’s emotional and psychological needs; and the late twentieth century stress on maximizing children’s intellectual and social development. Seventeenth-century colonists recognized that children differed from adults in their mental, moral, and physical capabilities, and drew a distinction between childhood, an intermediate stage they called youth, and adulthood. But they did not rigidly segregate children by age. Parents wanted children to speak, read, reason, and contribute to their family’s economic well-being as soon as possible. Infancy was regarded as a state of deficiency. Unable to speak or stand, infants lacked two essential attributes of full humanity. Parents discouraged infants from crawling, and placed them in “walking stools,” similar to today’s walkers. To ensure proper adult posture, young girls wore leather corsets and parents placed rods along the spines of very young children of both sexes.

During the eighteenth century, a shift in parental attitudes took place. Fewer parents expected children to bow or doff their hats in their presence or stand during meals. Instead of addressing parents as “sir” and “madam,” children called them “papa” and “mama.” By the end of the eighteenth century, furniture specifically designed for children, painted in pastel colors and decorated with pictures of animals or figures from nursery rhymes, began to be widely produced, reflecting the popular notion of childhood as a time of innocence and playfulness. There was a growing stress on implanting virtue and a capacity for self-government.

By the early nineteenth century, mothers in the rapidly expanding Northeastern middle class increasingly embraced an amalgam of earlier childrearing ideas. From John Locke, they absorbed the notion that children were highly malleable creatures and that a republican form of government required parents to instill a capacity for self-government in their children. From Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Romantic poets middle-class parents acquired the idea of childhood as a special stage of life, intimately connected with nature and purer and morally superior to adulthood. From the evangelicals, the middle class adopted the idea that the primary task of parenthood was to implant proper moral character in children and to insulate children from the corruptions of the adult world.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, middle-class parents began to embrace the idea that childrearing needed to become more scientific. The Child Study movement, through which teachers and mothers under the direction of psychologists identified a series of stages of childhood development, culminating with the “discovery” of adolescence as a psychologically turbulent period that followed puberty. The belief that scientific principles had not been properly applied to childrearing produced new kinds of childrearing manuals, of which the most influential was Dr. Luther Emmett Holt’s The Care and Feeding of Children, first published in 1894. Holt emphasized rigid scheduling of feeding, bathing, sleeping, and bowel movements and advised mothers to guard vigilantly against germs and undue stimulation of infants. At a time when a well-adjusted adult was viewed as a creature of habit and self-control, he stressed the importance of imposing regular habits on infants. He discouraged mothers from kissing their babies, and told them to ignore their crying and to break such habits as thumb-sucking.15

During the 1920s and 1930s, the field of child psychology exerted a growing influence on middle-class parenting. It provided a new language to describe children’s emotional problems, such as sibling rivalry, phobias, maladjustment, and inferiority and Oedipus complexes; it also offered new insights into forms of parenting (based on such variables as demandingness or permissiveness), the stages and milestones of children’s development, and the characteristics of children at particular ages (such as the “terrible twos,” which was identified by Arnold Gesell, Frances L. Ilg, and Louise Bates Ames). The growing prosperity of the 1920s made the earlier emphasis on regularity and rigid self-control seem outmoded. A well-adjusted adult was now regarded a more easygoing figure, capable of enjoying leisure. Rejecting the mechanistic and behaviorist notion that children’s behavior could be molded by scientific control, popular dispensers of advice favored a more relaxed approach to childrearing, emphasizing the importance of meeting babies’ emotional needs. The title of a 1936 book by pediatrician C. Anderson Aldrich—Babies Are Human Beings—summed up the new attitude.16

The Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II greatly intensified parental anxieties about childrearing. During the postwar era, there was an intense fear that faulty mothering caused lasting psychological problems in children. Leading psychologists such as Theodore Lidz, Irving Bieber, and Erik Erikson linked schizophrenia, homosexuality, and identity diffusion to mothers who displaced their frustrations and needs for independence onto their children. A major concern was that many boys, raised almost exclusively by women, failed to develop an appropriate sex role identity. In retrospect, it seems clear that an underlying source of anxiety lay in the fact that mothers were raising their children with an exclusivity and in an isolation unparalleled in American history.17

Since the early 1970s, parental anxieties have greatly increased both in scope and intensity. Many parents sought to protect children from every imaginable harm by baby-proofing their homes, using car seats, and requiring bicycle helmets. Meanwhile, as more mothers joined the labor force, parents arranged more structured, supervised activities for their children. A variety of factors contributed to a surge in anxiety. As parents had fewer children, they invested more emotion in each child. An increase in professional expertise about children, coupled with a proliferation of research and advocacy organizations, media outlets, and government agencies responsible for children’s health and safety made parents increasing aware of threats to children’s well-being and of ways to maximize their children’s physical, social, and intellectual development. Unlike postwar parents, who wanted to produce normal children who fit in, middle-class parents now wanted to give their child a competitive edge. For many middle-class parents, fears of downward mobility and anxiety that they would not be able to pass on their status and class to their children, made them worry that their offspring would underperform academically, athletically, or socially.
Moral Panics Over Children’s Well-Being

Americans are great believers in progress in all areas but one. For more than three centuries, Americans have feared that the younger generation is going to hell in a handbasket. Today, many adults mistakenly believe that compared to their predecessors, kids today are less respectful and knowledgeable, and more alienated, sexually promiscuous, and violent. They fear that contemporary children are growing up too fast and losing their sense of innocent wonder at too young an age. Prematurely exposed to the pressures, stresses, and responsibilities of adult life, they fear, the young mimic adult sophistication, dress inappropriately, and experiment with alcohol, drugs, sex, and tobacco before they are emotionally and psychologically ready.

A belief in the decline of the younger generation is one of this country’s oldest convictions. In 1657, a Puritan minister, Ezekiel Rogers, admitted: “I find the greatest trouble and grief about the rising generation…. Much ado I have with my own family… the young breed doth much afflict me.” For more than three centuries, American adults have worried that children are growing ever more disobedient and disrespectful. But wistfulness about a golden age of childhood is invariably misleading. Nostalgia almost always represents a yearning not for the past as it really was but rather for fantasies about the past. In 1820, children constituted about half of the workers in early factories. As recently as the 1940s, one child in ten lived apart from both parents and fewer than half of all high school students graduated. We forget that over the past century, the introduction of every new form of entertainment has generated intense controversy over its impact on children, and that the anxiety over video games and the Internet are only the latest in a long line of supposed threats to children that includes movies, radio, and even comic books. The danger of nostalgia is that it creates unrealistic expectations, guilt, and anger. 18

Ever since the Pilgrims departed for Plymouth in 1620, fearful that “their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted” in the Old World, Americans have experienced repeated panics over the younger generation. Sometimes these panics were indeed about children, such as the worries over polio in the early 1950s. More often, however, children stand in for some other issue, and the panics are more metaphorical than representational, such as the panic over teenage pregnancy, youth violence, and declining academic achievement in the late 1970s and 1980s, which reflected pervasive fears about family breakdown, crime, drugs, and America’s declining competitiveness in the world.19

Abuse of Children

Concern about the abuse of children has waxed and waned over the course of American history. The seventeenth-century Puritans were the first people in the Western world to make the physical abuse of children a criminal offense, though their concern with family privacy and patriarchal authority meant that these statutes were rarely enforced. During the pre-Civil War decades, temperance reformers argued that curbs on alcohol would reduce wife beating and child abuse. The first organizations to combat child abuse, which appeared in the 1870s, were especially concerned about abuse in immigrant, destitute, and foster families.20

Over half a century ago, Alfred Kinsey’s studies found rates of sexual abuse similar to those reported today. His interviews indicated that exhibitionists had exposed themselves in front of 12 percent of pre-adolescent girls and that 9 percent of the girls had had their genitals fondled. But it was his findings about pre-marital and extra-marital sex that grabbed the public’s attention, not the sexual abuse of its children. Not until the publication of an influential article on “The Battered Child Syndrome” in 1962 was abuse finally identified as a social problem demanding a significant governmental response. Even in succeeding years, however, public consciousness about abuse has fluctuated widely. In 1986, nearly a third of adults identified abuse as one of the most serious problems facing children and youth; in a survey a decade later abuse went unmentioned.21

We quite rightly focus on the way that young people are physically at risk, whether through physical or sexual abuse or neglect or economic vulnerability. But across American history, some of the gravest threats to the young have involved their psychological vulnerability. Even worse than the physically sufferings under slavery were the psychological scars enslavement left. Worse than toiling in factories was the hidden curriculum, that working class children were inferior to their supposed social betters, suited for little more than routine, repetitious labor. As the literary critic Daniel Kline has persuasively argued, contemporary American society subjects the young to three forms of psychological violence that we tend to ignore. First, there is the violence of expectations in which children are pushed beyond their social, physical, and academic capabilities, largely as an expression of their parents’ needs. Then there is the violence of labeling that diagnoses normal childish behavior (for example, normal childhood exuberance or interest in sex) as pathological. Further, there is the violence of representation, the exploitation of children and adolescent by advertisers, marketers, purveyors of popular culture, and politicians, who exploit parental anxieties as well as young peoples’ desire to be stylish, independent, and defiant, and eroticize teenage and pre-adolescent girls.

There is a fourth form of psychological abuse that is perhaps the most unsettling of all: the objectification of childhood. This involves viewing children as objects to be shaped and molded for their own good. Compared to its predecessors, contemporary American society is much more controlling in an institutional and ideological sense. We expect children to conform to standards that few adults could meet. Meanwhile, as the baby boom generation ages, we inhabit an increasingly adult-oriented society, a society that has fewer “free” spaces for the young, a society that values youth primarily as service workers and consumers and gawks at them as sex objects.

For more than three centuries, America has considered itself to be a particularly child-centered society despite massive evidence to the contrary. Today, no other advanced country allows as many young people to grow up in poverty or without health care. Nor does any other western society makes so poor a provision for childcare or for paid parental leave. Still, Americans think of themselves as a child-centered nation. This paradox is not new. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, the United States developed a host of institutions for the young, ranging from the common school to the Sunday school, the orphanage, the house of refuge, and the reformatory, and eventually expanding to include the children’s hospital, the juvenile court, and a wide variety of youth organizations. It was assumed that these institutions served children’s interests, that they were caring, developmental, and educational. In practice, however, these institutions frequently proved to be primarily custodial and disciplinary. Indeed, many of the reforms that were supposed to help children were adopted partly because they served the adults’ needs, interests, and convenience. The abolition of child labor removed competition from an overcrowded labor market. Age-grading not only made it much easier to control children within schools, it also divided the young into convenient market segments. One of the most serious challenges American society faces is to act on behalf of children’s welfare rather than adults’.

The most important lesson that grows out of an understanding of the history of childhood is the simplest. While many fear that American society has changed too much, the sad fact is that it has changed too little. Americans have failed to adapt social institutions to the fact that the young mature more rapidly than they did in the past; that most mothers of preschoolers now participate in the paid work force; and that a near majority of children will spend substantial parts of their childhood in a single-parent, cohabitating-parent, or stepparent household. How can we provide better care for the young, especially the one-sixth who are growing up in poverty? How can we better connect the worlds of adults and the young? How can we give the young more ways to demonstrate their growing competence and maturity? How can we tame a violence-laced, sex-saturated popular culture without undercutting a commitment to freedom and a respect for the free-floating world of fantasy? These are the questions we must confront as we navigate a new century of childhood.


 A particularly vivid expression of the view that we are witnessing the death of childhood can be seen in a letter written by 110 academics, writers and medical experts in Britain in 2006. See “Modern life leads to more depression among children,” (London) Daily Telegraph, September 13, 2006,

2 Ron Powers, Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain (New York: Da Capo Press, 1999); Powers, Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heart of America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 2, 32-34, 40, 131; Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Lighting Out for the Territories: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

3 Powers, Dangerous Water, 26, 84, 167; Powers, Huck and Tom Don’t Live Here Anymore, 78.

4 Richard Weissbourd, The Vulnerable Child: What Really Hurts America’s Children And What We Can Do About It (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub., 1996), 48.

5 Colin Heywood, A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2001; Joseph Illick, American Childhood (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002); James A. Schultz, The Knowledge of Childhood in the German Middle Ages, 1100-1350 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 11.

6 Howard P. Chudacoff, How Old Are You? Age Consciousness in American Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989; Joseph F. Kett, Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America (New York: Basic, 1977).

7 Kett, Rites of Passage, passim.

8 On changes in the onset of sexual maturation, see Marcia E. Herman-Giddens and others, "Secondary Sexual Characteristics and Menses in Young Girls Seen in Office Practice: A Study from the Pediatric Research in Office Settings Network," Pediatrics, Vol. 99, No. 4 (April 1997), 505-512. In 1890, the average age of menarche in the United States was estimated to be 14.8 years; by the 1990s, the average age had fallen to 12.5 (12.1 for African American girls and 12.8 for girls of northern European ancestry). According to the study, which tracked 17,000 girls to find out when they hit different markers of puberty, 15 percent of white girls and 48 percent of African American girls showed signs of breast development or pubic hair by age 8. For conflicting views on whether the age of menarche has fallen, see Lisa Belkin, "The Making of an 8-Year-Old Woman,” New York Times, December 24, 2000; Gina Kolata, “Doubters Fault Theory Finding Earlier Puberty, New York Times,” 20 February 20, 2001; and “2 Endocrinology Groups Raise Doubt on Earlier Onset of Girls' Puberty,” New York Times, March 3, 2001.

9 Stephen Robertson, “The Disappearance of Childhood,”

10 Gerald F. Moran, “Colonial America, Adolescence in,” Encyclopedia of Adolscence, edited by Richard Lerner, Anne C. Petersen, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn (New York: Garland Pub., 1991), I, 159-167.

11 Priscilla Clement, Growing Pains: Children in the Industrial Age (New York: Twayne, 1997); David Nasaw, Children in the City: At Work and at Play (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1985); Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (New York: Knopf, 1986).

12 David I. Macleod, The Age of the Child: Children in America, 1890–1912 (New York: Twayne, 1998).

13 Viviana Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

14 Peter N. Stearns, Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America(New York: New York University Press, 2002).

15 Ann Hulbert, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children (New York: Knopf, 2003); Julia Grant, Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

16 Kathleen W. Jones, Taming the Troublesome Child (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

17 Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: Free Press, 1988), 189.

18 Rogers quoted in James Axtell, School Upon a Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 28. Hard as it is to believe, in 1951 a leading television critic decried the quality of children’s television. Jack Gould, radio and TV critic for The New York Times from the late 1940s to 1972, complained that there was "nothing on science, seldom anything on the country's cultural heritage, no introduction to fine books, scant emphasis on the people of other lands, and little concern over hobbies and other things for children to do themselves besides watch television." Chicago Sun Times, Aug. 9, 1998, 35; Phil Scraton, ed., Childhood in “Crisis” (London; Bristol, Penn.: UCL Press, 1997. 1997),161, 164.

19 William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, edited by Samuel Elliot Morrison (New York: Modern Library, 1952), 25; Moran, “Colonial America, Adolescence in,” 159.

20 Linda Gordon, Heroes of their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence (New York: Viking, 1988); Elizabeth Pleck, Domestic Tyranny: the Making of Social Policy against Family Violence from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

21 William Feldman et al., “Is Childhood Sexual Abuse Really Increasing in Prevalence? An Analysis of the Evidence,” Pediatrics, July 1991, Vol. 88 Issue 1, 29-34; Males, Framing Youth, 257; In 1998, government agencies substantiated over a million cases of child maltreatment, including approximately 101,000 cases of sexual abuse. About 51 percent of life time rapes occur prior to age 18 and 29 percent of lifetime rapes occur prior to age 12. Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Combating Violence And Delinquency : The National Juvenile Justice Action Plan : Report (Washington D.C.: Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1996), 75; National Criminal Justice Reference Service, The 1994 Sex in America study of the sex lives of 3,400 men and women reported that 17 percent of the women and 12 percent of the men reported childhood sexual abuse. See Males, Scapegoat Generation, 74.

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